The Bishop of Leicester was led up the stairs to the main door of Birkencar. He held his robes to his nose against the smell.
-Sir Guy is expecting you, your Grace? asked the flustered steward.
-He should be; it was he who asked me to come. Have you a tannery in the village?
-No, your Grace. The nearest is in Nottingham, I believe.
-The place smells like one. He made an expression of distaste.
-Sir Guy has wine now? The Bishop smiled to himself, and declined. I would like to know on what business your lord has dragged me such a distance.
The steward made a pained face, but before he could speak Gisburne emerged from the Hall. He greeted the Bishop with a show of deference and courtesy that didn’t fool the clergyman for a moment.
Inside the Hall they were alone: there stood neither servant attending, nor guard on duty.
-What is so secret, Sir Guy, that it cannot even be trusted to an illiterate messenger?
-Please take a seat, your Grace. I have a strategy to rid ourselves of a mutual irritant.
The Bishop was puzzled.
-You seek assistance from me, rather than from the Sheriff of Nottingham, in dealing with Robin Hood?
Gisburne laughed softly, as if at a private joke, and gestured.
-Sit, please, and let me explain.
Much held up a warning hand. Scathelocke dropped to the ground as quietly as he could. They waited in silence. In the distance, hardly visible, a pair of foresters stalked through the trees. Much felt a trickle of sweat down his back, and a chill on his scalp. He had no bow with him, just a knife, and Scathelocke a short sword. Possession of either was punishable. They crouched, fearing to breathe. Much’s legs began to ache.
From somewhere, a noise. Much wished Stutely were here: he could tell them who was there, how many there were, from which direction they came, all from the disturbance they made in the air, or the smell of their shadows or some such craft.
This noise came again louder, careless, and though he could see nothing yet the foresters, with the little oak-leaf emblem on their breast, had evidently heard it too. Footsteps, snapping twigs and, too low to distinguish, voices.
Much saw Scathelocke draw his sword, inch by inch from its scabbard. The voices came closer.
Two boys, little younger than Much, were gathering wood. Though in turns hushing each other, as though aware of the danger of the enterprise, their sniggering and teasing showed them heedless of the danger they were in. Much glanced at Scathelocke; they should warn the boys, drive them away before the foresters saw them. Better the foresters only came across two outlaws. Scathelocke’s face was set in a glare so awful he recoiled. He was staring at the boys with barely-suppressed fury.
-Will, we’ve got to warn them!
The foresters were silent now, and Much could no longer see them. One of the boys was tugging at a branch, seemingly dead but unwilling to break.
-Leave it! Much whispered, wishing the boys could hear him. Will, we must do something. He lisped, remembering Stutely’s warning that a “s” carried further.
But they were too late. The foresters appeared, swiftly and quietly. The boys realised their predicament too late. They dropped their firewood, rooted to the spot. Much, in an agony of indecision, looked to his companion. One of the foresters made to strike a boy with the flat of the blade. Scathelocke burst from cover like a boar, and with a cry snapped the branch the boys had struggled to break, in a single movement bringing it down on the startled forester’s head. The man fell, face down in the grass. His companion drew his own sword. Much ran at him, and slashed at his sword-arm. Blood spattered and the sword fell. The man grabbed at his wounded wrist and, hesitating long enough to fix the outlaws’ faces in his mind, turned and fled.
Scathelocke turned on the taller of the two boys, hands curling. Much knew that look. But the boy shouted first.
And then Scathelocke had the boy against a tree and was roaring at him.
-What are you doing? What were you thinking? You’re stupid! Do you want to get killed? Does your mother know you’re here? Tell me! The boy’s face crumpled into tears. His face red, Much now saw the family resemblance. The other boy was quietly collecting the fallen boughs.
-It was my idea, he said, cowering behind an armful of beechwood. Scathelocke glared at him, and let go of his son. The boy blubbed silently.
-I don’t care whose idea it was. You’re lucky to be alive. What were you thinking?
The smaller boy muttered an apology. Much laid a hand on Will’s son. Scathelocke took deep breaths, face taut.
-Think of your mother, he said in a strained voice. The twins. They need you.
-We have to go, said Much. We have to get away from here.
-Damn it! He turned to the other boy. I know you: Simon, isn’t it?
-Simon, don’t let him take you into the forest again, you hear?
Simon nodded briskly.
-Tell me, Thomas: how is your mother?
-Fine? What do you mean, fine?
-Will…Much began, but a raised finger from Scathelocke shut him up.
-Elric…she doesn’t like him, I know she doesn’t, but. His wife has died, see, and he…I can’t stop him, Dad.
Scathelocke seethed, and kicked the inert body of the unconscious forester.
-I hate him, Dad. I took Simon into the forest to get away.
-It’s too dangerous and you’re too young, Scathelocke grunted.
Thomas looked pointedly at Much.
-How old are you? he asked the outlaw.
-That’s none of your business, said Will. Come here. He hugged the boy tight, eyes squeezed shut. When he opened them, they were red and watery. Much looked away.
-Now, here’s your punishment. Tell your mother that I’m well, and that I miss her.
-How is that punishment? Thomas looked puzzled.
-Because she’ll ask you how you know. And you’ll have to tell her.
Much saw realisation of the consequences dawn on the boy’s face, and pitied him.
-Will you ever come back to us, Dad?
-You’d best go. Be strong.
Much watched the two boys dart along the path, but Scathelocke had already turned away. Much scurried after him.
-How long will we be here, Much? Will’s voice was tremulous, and he avoided eye contact, peering up into the trees.
-You can leave, Will Scathelocke. As far as the law knows, you’re dead. You and your family could leave the county.
-That again? You’re the one with your life ahead of you. It’s you I don’t want to think of still living here in five years’ time.
-I’ll be bigger, stronger by then.
-Some of us will die, Much. Shot; diseased; starved or frozen. It stands to reason. What about the winter, eh? How do we survive that?
-There’s plenty time before winter.
-For what, Much? For what, exactly?